Outlet mall OK'd after 4-year fight

MERRIMACK – Bargain-hunters, start your engines: Come 2010, there will be 135 new shops to scour in Merrimack.

The planning board Tuesday approved Chelsea Property Group’s proposal for Merrimack Premium Outlets, putting an end to a marathon four years of study, debate and some controversy regarding 135 upscale clothing and home-good shops.

The project is slated for 170 acres west of Exit 10 on the F.E. Everett Turnpike.

Several planning board members said they didn’t like everything about the project, but that overall, Chelsea had done its job.

“We all have our own pet peeves about it, but on the whole, I can’t see how I’d vote against it,” Stanley Bonislawski said. “I have to vote for the thing mainly because all the negotiations between their consultants, our consultants . . . There are advantages and disadvantages, but we live in town, too. We don’t want to see anything bad happen.”

“I don’t believe I’ve heard any justification that we could put forward that would stand up in court to deny this,” Tom Koenig said.

Alistair Millns, who said he was still worried about traffic, said he would support the project, in part, because “this town needs anything it can do to expand its tax base.”

John Segedy listed his concerns, including traffic, the emergency access road that is close to neighborhoods, blasting – the effects of which he called “risky and acceptable,” and crime, which he said was not addressed at all.In the end, Segedy was the lone dissenter in the vote.

The project, first proposed in 2004, has quite a history, including a controversial zoning-change vote in 2005, followed by a months-long court battle, then a lengthy permitting process and, since the beginning of this summer, a stringent site plan review process.

Approval on Tuesday didn’t come without strings attached. Chelsea must meet 19 conditions, many that have to be completed before final plans are signed by the board, and a few that have to be met before occupancy.

The conditions include final review of the construction management plan, operation and maintenance plan and various other revised plans; submission of a host of deed restrictions and conservation easements; and payment of outstanding expenses.

Some neighbors to the project have regularly stood in protest of the project because of concerns on traffic, noise, rock blasting and the environment.

On Tuesday, resident Mike Mills zapped a few nerves with an audible demonstration of an allowed noise level. He then told the board he was concerned that the 19 conditions would not be open for public input.

Resident Dennis King was the only person who spoke in favor of the project at the meeting, but community development Director Walter Warren said he received 89 e-mails about the outlet mall in the past few days. All but two, he said, were in support. It is unclear whether all were sent from Merrimack residents.

Hours before the board’s decision, The Telegraph interviewed several mall supporters whose contact information was provided by a public relations consultant on behalf of Chelsea Property Group.

Most of those interviewed named two big project pros: property taxes that Chelsea would pay and jobs the outlet mall would provide.

The first one is especially important to resident Robin L’Homme.

“Being a retired person here, the real estate taxes will drive me out of town,” L’Homme said. “It’s a very big burden.”

Robin and her husband Robert L’Homme live on Manchester Street, not far from where the project would be built.

“I’m sure there will be a negative impact at times with traffic,” Robin L’Homme said. “But I believe that the benefits far outweigh the negative impact.”

Craig Hoemke noted a number of vacancies in commercial buildings on Continental Boulevard and the uncertainty of Anheuser-Busch, which is being bought by a Belgian company.

“Our town, as in all towns, we have industries moving out, and we have to come up with new ways to bring in property taxes,” Hoemke said. “The fact that somebody’s willing to come in and build and produce revenue, it has to help.”

Folks like Bonnie Calhoun and Eleanor Foushi said they were simply happy that such shopping options would be available.

Foushi, a resident for 28 years, said her husband used to drive her to outlet shopping, but he passed away last year.

“With price of gas and being a senior, it’s not too likely that I’m going to make the trip,” Foushi said. “I think the town needs to think about some of the elderly people in town to who’d like some decent shops close to home.”